Director – Anastasia Tsang – 2022 – Hong Kong – Cert. 15 – 103m
The widow of a Hong Kong neon sign maker attempts to fulfil his last wish in constructing a specific neon sign, despite new regulations outlawing them – out in UK cinemas on Friday, May 12th #ALightNeverGoesOut
Mei-heung (Sylvia Chang) hangs around an amusement arcade coming to terms with the loss of her husband Bill (Simon Yam) who died just six weeks ago. He believed in luck and wishes coming true, and once won on a machine she thought a scam by inserting a coin whilst facing away from the machine. In their younger days, he proposed to her by fixing various neon lights on timers so that every time she’d make a wish, a switched off neon street sign would light up. Discovering her hard-nosed, go-getter daughter Prism (Cecilia Choi from Detention, John Hsu, 2019) has dumped Bill’s effects at the local communal recycle bin, she tries to retrieve them, falling foul of a cop more interested in enforcing rules than community spirit.
Bill was a much better craftsman than businessman, and packed in his business ten years ago so as to obtain a university grant for Prism. (Her father’s ownership of a business would have disqualified her.) In an old pair of jeans, Mei-heung finds his workshop key, and uses it to open the door padlocks, only to find inside a young man (Henick Chou) wearing a mask.
Challenged, he explains he is Leo, her husband’s apprentice, and that Bill had a final wish, to build a particular neon sign, although Leo doesn’t know what sign or for which client it was intended. They manage to rescue her husband’s phone in a second visit to the recycle bin and set about trying to establish the details of the proposed sign with a view to building it. Prism thinks the whole thing a folly, and tries to stop them.
Packing in lots of neon sign imagery and with a clear love of the craftsmanship involved in the production of such signs, this is a gentle family drama likely to appeal to middle-aged or older people, mercifully free of the mawkish sentiment that usually accompanies British films aimed at this demographic. The combination of striking production design by Alex Mok (whose credits include Lust, Caution, Ang Lee, 2007) and gorgeous cinematography by Leung Ming Kai delivers a ravishing visual look while the four main stars, not only the grand old pair of Chang and the all too briefly seen in flashbacks Yam, but also Choi and Chou, light up the screen. The whole thing is gentle and slow paced, but for the most part brilliantly holds the attention.
I say for the most part because one minor element doesn’t really work: the flashbacks to Mei-heung and Bill as a young couple played by Alma Kwok and Jacky Hoo-Yin Tong who are poorly cast (they neither look nor feel like the older couple) and lack the charisma of the four lead actors.
That gaffe aside, though, there is much to admire here, whether it’s watching Sylvia Chang, Simon Yam or even Henick Chou working on neon tubes with gas-fired burners, or likeable incidental scenes such as the one where Mei-heung and Leo scatter banknotes at the harbour’s waterside edge in memory of his late grandma, who was buried in an unknown location at sea.
At one point, his widow is horrified to discover that Bill’s proposed neon sign looks like being a gift to an old flame, but it turns out, poignantly, that the client is the wife of a dementia sufferer who she hopes will recognise the sign as he proposed to her in sight of it. Even the hostile Prism is ultimately persuaded to take part in the making and installation of the neon sign, which is doomed to likely removal by the intransigent authorities the next day.
There’s clearly a political dimension to all this; neon signs hark back to pre-1997 Hong Kong when the city was a British Crown Colony and politically freer than it is under today’s Chinese rule and these signs were not then regulated as they now are. The advent of allegedly safer LED lighting has also contributed to neon’s decline as a desired lighting medium, and the end credits are used to present a slide show of photographic stills showing several real life Hong Kong neon craftsmen together with examples of their work. The political element is never pushed, it just sits in the film unassumingly for anyone who cares to interpret it that way, which is probably a far more effective way of making the point.
Regardless of any such political consideration, however, the film works extremely well as a nice, gentle helping of cinema perfect for pleasant matinée viewing. A good and strangely satisfying little film, well worth seeking out.
A Light Never Goes Out is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, May 12th. #ALightNeverGoesOut